Early Medieval Period – Art and Architecture

In stone architecture, there were two major forms: rock-cut and structural. Rock architecture, as you probably already know, refers to the creation of architectural forms in living rock. These rock-cut temples and monasteries usually look like artificial caves in hills and cliffs.

These were distinct from ‘structural’ architecture, which refers to building freestanding structures with dressed-stone (or brick) masonry. Occasionally these two forms could be combined, but normally they remained separate, and have different chronological spans. Rock architecture, which over its long career was a virtually pan-South Asian phenomenon, goes back to the Mauryan period, but it is from about mid-fifth century (beginning at Ajanta and Ellora) that it entered its most active phase. By the end of this period the great age of rock architecture in Indian art history was by and large drawing to a close, even though its greatest achievement – the Kailasanatha temple at Ellora – comes just after it. It was during these centuries that construction of structural buildings in stone and brick got under way in an important way, but the really magnificent and classic phase of structural temples begins after the age of rock architecture was over. Generally speaking, there was an overlap between the two types of construction during this period, except in the south under the Pallavas, where the structural phase begins in the eighth century only after the rock-cut phase comes to an end in the seventh.

As the fine examples from Ajanta and Ellora testify, major advances were made as the artists stopped imitating wooden prototypes and achieved increasing perfection of design and execution; in some instances, it has been observed, ‘lines are straighter, angles more correct, and surfaces more true than in any other examples’. Further, two monasteries at Ellora are the only examples we have of three storeys in rock-cut art. Till about the end of the sixth century Buddhism largely dominated the rock-cut mode of architecture, and then gradually Brahmanism became more important, followed by Jainism. Despite the different religious affiliations, the architectural style remained common, expect for some adaptation for ritualistic purposes.

Examples of freestanding structures, built of stone or brick, are known from an earlier period. A most remarkable development of our period was the evolution of the typical brahmanical temple of the medieval era. The medieval temple was a very elaborate structure with several typical features. The process began, about the turn of the sixth century, with the addition of a tower called shikhara to the flat roofs of the shrine-rooms of the Gupta period. The earliest examples of such an addition come from Bhitargaon near Kanpur (brick) and Deogarh near Jhansi and Aihole near Badami (stone). The remaining features were gradually added till about 740 CE, when at the Vaikunthanath Perumal shrine at Kanchipuram we see a combination of all the standard attributes of the medieval temple. The evolution occurred at different pace in various regions. For instance, an important stage in the evolution was the connection of the pillared assembly hall called mandapa with the sanctum by means of a vestibule called antarala. As late as 700 CE this had not become a general practice as it is absent in both the Shore temple at Mamallapuram and the Kailasanatha at Kanchipuram (this Kailasanatha temple was used as an inspiration for the one at Ellora).


In sculpture, the classical tradition with its emphasis on fully rounded volume by and large continued. The medieval style, in which rounded volume and smooth convex lines give way to flat surfaces and sharp curves, is seen occasionally in isolated examples, such as in a sixth-century frieze at the Dhamek stupa at Sarnath, but it did not come into its own till a later period, and even then remained confined to certain regions only.


The same is true of painting. It was quite a developed art by the onset of this period, and the Vishnudharmottara Purana, a contemporary text from Kashmir, provides a detailed account of its various aspects. Literary references show that there were both murals (paintings on walls and ceiling) of different types in private homes, royal palaces, and religious places as well popular portable galleries of pictures drawn on textiles. However, although several examples of paintings from this period have survived, they all are all murals in religious establishments. The best-preserved specimens come from the sixth-century Buddhist caves (rock-cut halls) at Bagh in Madhya Pradesh, Ajanta, and Badami, the seventh-century rock-cut Jaina temple at Sittanavasal in Tamil Nadu (a good part of the extant paintings, it has now been found out, belong to the ninth century), and the seventh-century Shaiva Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram. Outside India, Sigiri in Sri Lanka furnishes beautiful instances. The tradition of classical painting continued in all these and many other cases through the seventh century and beyond. In the classical mode, there was an attempt at three-dimensional representation by employing several techniques, such as chiaroscuro (use of light and shade by means of colour shades and tones). Through these centuries, however, the medieval style, which was to find a foothold in many regions, was also developing; it appears in an eighth-century Ellora painting with a completeness that suggests a long period of prior evolution. As in sculpture, the classical and the medieval were to coexist in South Asia after our period.

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